Republican Paul LePage participates in a gubernatorial debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. LePage is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mils. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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After Maine’s gubernatorial candidates left the stage following their first debate last week, much attention focused on Paul LePage’s answers on abortion. LePage had attempted to execute an Olympic level flip-flop but failed spectacularly.

LePage went from saying during his governorship “we should not have abortion” to trying to back down from absolutism. But LePage also demonstrated he didn’t really understand abortion policy or pregnancy itself.

Indeed, LePage proclaimed his ignorance.

Asked how he would react to bills banning abortion different times during a pregnancy, LePage responded:  “I don’t know what you mean by 15 weeks or 28 weeks. I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure I understand the question.”

Well, this is what LePage should have known.

The average pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks and is conventionally divided into three trimesters. Questions about abortions and timing are nothing new. The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision held that the right of a woman to end a pregnancy versus the power of a state to ban abortion varies depending on the trimester.

Since a national right to choose abortion was overturned by the Supreme Court in June, it’s now constitutional to ban all abortions or to set limitations beyond those previously allowed. That’s what LePage was being asked about.

You’d think that a former chief executive and gubernatorial candidate who’s repeatedly opined on abortion would understand these basic details.

Yet, as widely recognized in Maine and nationally, LePage’s responses were contradictory and confused.

Besides shifting positions and asserting he didn’t comprehend the timing issue, LePage ducked a follow-up question from Gov. Janet Mills. After saying he’d not sign a particular hypothetical abortion limitation, he refused to state if he’d let it go into law without his signature, saying he wouldn’t respond to a hypothetical situation.

Contra LePage, Mills was clear and forthright about her position, proclaiming, “I do understand the question. I would not let such a law become effective. My veto pen would stand in the way.”

While LePage gave muddled debate answers, his history provides ample reason to believe he would be hostile to abortion rights in a third term as governor. After all, when he was governor he regularly spoke at anti-Roe events and even defunded family planning services. Even absent legislative action, he could use executive orders and the line-item veto power to limit reproductive rights and services.

Besides LePage stating he doesn’t comprehend abortion policy options, this is not the only issue where LePage could sharpen his understanding.

Take the needs of Maine’s seniors. When governor, LePage line-item vetoed funding for Meals on Wheels.

This year the Maine AARP queried the gubernatorial candidates on how they would assist “the state’s estimated 181,000 unpaid family caregivers” and help the elderly stay in their homes. Only one candidate’s responses addressed what our elderly and loved ones are grappling with.

Regarding unpaid caregivers, Mills answered with a series of specifics to help elders and their families. These included Mills’ $2,000 respite grants for family members taking care of a loved one with a disability or some form of dementia.

In contrast, LePage seemed unsympathetic, asserting, “It’s not a burden when you’re taking care of a loved one” and saying people should just “make a lot of money and they can afford to take care of their loved ones.”

On enabling seniors to stay in their homes and communities, LePage focused on a tax that applies to a tiny fraction of Maine estates — those  over $6,010,000. LePage told the AARP this tax is “a real concern that I have for retiring people” and it also “hurts our population of up-and-coming affluent people.”

Mills again focused on several policy specifics such as her creation of a Cabinet on Aging to coordinate state responses, and policies to enhance access to healthcare, transportation and housing.

Whether it’s pregnant women with unwanted or very difficult pregnancies, or Mainers who aren’t multi-millionaires who are seniors or are valiantly caring for elders, LePage’s lack of understanding harms his ability to address their needs effectively and with compassion. Better leadership starts with listening and learning before taking policy positions.

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Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...